Sunday, December 23, 2012

Grief, Despair, and Bells of Hope: Reflections at Christmas 2012

I haven't been able to get the folks in Newtown, Connecticut off my mind during this holiday season, especially during these last few days before Christmas. As I relish the joys of celebrating with my 6-year-old and 8-year-old daughters, I find myself wondering how on earth the parents of those slaughtered little ones--or the families of the many others killed in mass shootings in our country this year--are going to make it through these days. And over and over again in my head, I keep hearing the first verses of the old Christmas Carol that my father taught me to love when I was just 6 or 8 myself:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote those words as a poem on Christmas Day, 1864, while the Civil War was still raging. He wrote them in the midst not only of the widespread pain and loss of war, but in the aftermath of several personal tragedies. Just three years and a few months earlier, Longfellow's wife had died an excruciating death after several drops of hot wax had spattered her dress and caught it on fire while she was curling her daughter's hair. In his effort to extinguish the flames by throwing his own body upon hers, Longfellow suffered severe burns to his face, arms and hands.
As is documented here, the following Christmases were deeply sad ones for Longfellow:
In his journal that first Christmas after his wife’s death Longfellow wrote: "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays" . . .  For Christmas, 1862, Longfellow writes: "'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
In 1863, Longfellow made no journal entry. Just a few weeks earlier, he had gotten word that his oldest son, Lieutenant Charles Longfellow, had been severely wounded in battle and left crippled.

But something happened between Christmas of 1863 and Christmas of 1864, for the final verse of his poem reads
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

What was it that happened? What changed in his heart? In his mind? Perhaps if I knew, I could convince my own heart and mind to recite this final verse again this Christmas.

I wonder how many others in our society today are finding that final verse a challenge.

Significantly, it was not that verse that bothered John Baptiste Calkin when he set about the task of putting Longfellow's poem to music in 1872, but rather the fourth and the fifth verses--the ones that turn us face-to-face with the grim realities of our society, that decry the ugliness of the violence we do to one another and its far-reaching impacts. I hope that this year, our society will not do as Calkin did, and choose to ignore those verses, politely dropping them from the hymn. For we need to sing them, too; we need to admit to ourselves their relevance today.

But I hope we will not succumb to bowing our heads in despair, either. Let us instead allow Longfellow's poem to inspire us to finally say "Enough!" "No more thundering cannons!" "No more hearth-rending earthquakes!" Let us this Christmas decide to do the hard work it will take to make our society one in which our children--no matter their color, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, or zip code--have no reason to fear going to school, and where those who suffer mental and emotional illnesses find effective and affordable help instead of scorn and neglect. Maybe it is only through that sort of work that we can ultimately ensure that "the Wrong will fall, the Right prevail," and that the God of Peace and Goodwill will not perish in our midst.

If you would like to provide support to the families of the victims of the Newtown Shooting, you may send a check to:
Sandy Hook School Support Fund
c/o Newtown Savings Bank
39 Main Street
Newtown, CT 06470. 
To help those who are working to decrease gun violence in our society, consider supporting one of the following organization:
  • The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (
  • The Violence Policy Center (
  • Join Together (
  • One of the many local groups spread throughout the country--possibly in your own backyard.
To help those who are working to meet the needs of those suffering from mental and emotional problems, consider supporting:
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (
  • Mental Health America (


Jules Smith said...

Wow, Dudda. I love this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this incredibly difficult and heart-wrenching topic. And also for sharing the links. How important it is to keeps those folks in mind during this time of year, that for them will not be filled with gratefulness & celebration but instead, incomprehensible mourning.

Beth Oldham said...

Thanks for these comments. The whole congregation at my church met at the altar the Sunday after the massacre in Newtown and prayed for these families. This act of violence has deeply touched those of us who are physically far removed from Connecticut yet bound together closely with them as we grieve with them and hold them in our hearts. I was also moved by your explanation of the background the Christmas carol and touched by your comments about Doug teaching it to you. Much love to you and the family, we loved being with you to celebrate Christmas!